Buck looked up at the grey sky and shuddered.
"Hey Ike! Don't you think it's better to stop for the night?"
His fellow rider readily accepted, they were returning from a double run and usually they would have enjoyed a nice ride in the prairie with no need to hurry, especially because they were travelling in a part of the country they didn't know; but that time it wasn't like this.
The weather had got worse and worse during all the day and now, at dusk, the two riders were tired to the bones and the only thing they could think about was a good fire and something warm in their stomachs.
They had rode for hours under a leaden sky and the humidity of the air had crept into their clothes until their backs between their shoulder blades began to ache, making it hard for them to take deep breaths. They couldn't wait to dismount from their horses. They headed toward a wood they had seen not too far from the trail; if it would rain, the trees would offer more shelter than the open prairie.
When they reached the wood they weren't so sure of their choice anymore, though. If out in the prairie they hadn't heard a sound, among the thick trunks the silence was almost disquieting. In the open, the air was still and they haven't seen or heard a bird or anything else; but they hadn't noticed it before, it was almost night and the diurnal animals must have already gone to their nests and lairs to sleep.
In the wood the silence was different, the air was immobile. Buck felt the hair at the base of his neck bristle, as if someone was observing them; he scanned their surroundings, but he didn't notice anything wrong. Then why did he feel that bad sensation at the pit of his stomach? He looked at Ike and the look on his friend's face confirmed his thoughts. There was something unpleasant in that wood.
Ike pointed out a small clearing where they could start a fire and they decided to stop. They hurried to gather the sticks and the branches they needed and built the fire. They laid down their humid and cold bedrolls and put them near the flames as much as they could, in order to dry them; then they put a can of beans to heat. Although they felt in need of a coffee to warm them up, they agreed it wasn't the best of choices, since their nerves were quite strained.
The worst thing was that they didn't know why they were so on pins and needles. They were spending a night on the trail as they have done a thousand times before, and they were together, not alone, then why did they feel so uncomfortable?
They ate their small food and drank a sort of infusion Buck made using some of the herbs he had in his sack. It had a relaxing effect and they began to feel a little better.
Suddenly a small noise broke the silence, it wasn't louder than the sound of a broken stick, but they froze. Their horses neighed softly but they didn't seem scared.
*I'll go see what disturbed the horses* Ike signed.
Buck nodded and told him to light a branch. The young Kiowa was beginning to feel a little stupid being so worrisome without an apparent reason, but he couldn't help himself from whispering a 'be careful' to his friend.
After few steps Ike's figure disappeared in the thick darkness that surrounded them. Buck stood still, listening for any signal from his friend; suddenly he heard the horses whinny louder and a guttural inarticulate cry pierce the air.
"Ike!" Buck yelled.
In a moment he grabbed another branch from the fire and hurried to reach the spot where they had tied the horses.
He found Ike holding a small, frightened Indian girl; she was squirming, trying to get herself free, unable to say a word. Ike had tried to calm her but, without the possibility to speak, it was quite hard for him. He looked pleadingly at Buck.
The young Kiowa stepped toward the girl slowly, talking softy in his mother tongue. He didn't know if the girl could understand him, but she stopped squirming and then she threw herself in his arms.
Ike was mortified, he didn't want to scare the girl, but how could he not? A bald, mute man who grabbed you and would not let you go wasn't a reassuring thing. But he did that only because he didn't want her to run away; she was barefoot and the small hide she was wearing didn't seem warm enough for weather like this, so Ike feared she would hurt herself alone in the wood.
Buck managed to calm the little girl. Although she was speaking in a language he didn't know, it was somehow familiar and he could understand that she was waiting or looking for someone called White Wolf. He convinced her to go with them to their camp and took her in his arm. She let him do it, curling against his chest and grabbing his shirtfront.
Using the Kiowa and helping himself with the universal Indian language of the signs, Buck explained to the girl, Flower of the Prairie, that Ike was his friend and didn't want to scare or hurt her and only after this she stopped being afraid of him, but she still was a little wary.
Buck wrapped her in a blanket and gave her an infusion to warm her a little, since she was freezing cold, and then they decided to turn in for the night. She continued to ask for White Wolf, but they convinced her that wherever he was they could have more chances to find him the next morning. She did protest but she was exhausted and soon she fell asleep in Buck's arms.
The Kiowa was worried, despite the fact she was sleeping in his bedroll with him and she had just had a very hot drink, Flower of the Prairie was still cold. Plus her arms and legs were bruised and scratched; as if she had taken a very bad fall or she had been beaten…they really needed to find her family.
A small knock distracted him from his thought. He looked up and saw a dejected Ike signing at him.
*Why was she so scared of me?*
"Because you are white." Buck responded sadly. "Something bad must have happened and white people are always involved in these cases."
Ike was hurt by the truth of his friend's words, but he couldn't reply.
They settled down for the night and soon they were asleep.
Ike woke up suddenly, his heart beating fast as if he had just had a nightmare, feeling the same sensation that caught them when they entered in the wood. He turned to look at Buck and saw his expression mirroring his own. It was as if something wrong was going to happen.
"Flower of the Prairie is disappeared!" Buck whispered.
In the same moment they heard a wolf howling not far from them.
They jumped out of their bedrolls, stirred the dying fire and lighted up some branches; if wolves were near, they would need them.
"Flower of the Prairie!" Buck called her while they ran through the wood looking for her. "Flower of the Prairie! It's dangerous!"
Finally they saw her little figure toddling with a happy expression on her face.
"White Wolf!" She was calling.
Both the riders sighed relieved. She must have seen who she was looking for. They approached her.
"White Wolf!" She repeated, pointing a finger toward the bushes before them.
Buck and Ike froze. In the darkness, two yellow eyes were glowing. Flower of the Prairie started to run toward the bush.
"White Wolf!" her voice was full of joy. Her eyes fixed on the yellow ones of the wolf.
"No!" Buck screamed and grabbed her. "No! Flower of the Prairie, it is a wolf!!"
The girl thrashed, trying to get free from Buck's strong hold.
"White Wolf is a friend!! Friend!" She was sobbing, reaching out her little hands. She was uncontrollable.
A low menacing growl ripped the silence, making the ground tremble, but Buck didn't loosen the grip on the girl. He was sure that if he had let her go, she would have run straight in the beast's mouth. She seemed hypnotized by the golden glow of its eyes.
Ike threw his torch toward the bush. A loud shrieking sound erupted from the darkness and then it was silence again. The girl slackened in Buck's hold, sobbing quietly. Ike went to the now burning bush, but he didn't see anything. The wolf has disappeared without a trace.
*It's vanished* He signed, pretty surprised.
"You bad!" Flower of the Prairie exclaimed then. "White Wolf is my friend!" she started again to squirm and bit Buck's hand, and he let her go with a surprised cry.
The child jumped on her feet and began to run toward the direction where the wolf must have gone.
"White Wolf! White Wolf!" they could her pleading calls while she run after it.
Buck and Ike looked at each other bewildered.
"She believes the wolf is her friend! We have to follow her!"
Ike nodded his agreement, but pointed out that they couldn't leave the horses and the rest of their things behind. Rapidly they return to their camp, gathered their things and mounted their faithful horses.
They headed toward the direction where Flower of the Prairie had gone. They rode carefully, looking for the smallest trace of the girl, but she seemed vanished with the wolf. It was dawn when, exhausted, they reached a small creek running at the foot of a cliff. In the distance they made some tents out, there was an Indian camp near the bank above them. They spurred their horses in that direction.
The camp was silent, they supposed the people who lived there were still sleeping, since it was still very early; but when they went closer they realized there was something wrong. Unconsciously they slowed down…again that disturbing feeling. Finally they saw it.
A body was lying on the bank, face down, immobile. They hurried up to it, but as soon as they reached it, they understood there was nothing they could do. It was a woman; shot at the back while trying to escape.
The camp was devastated, the tents they had noticed were the only things that still stood up. The woman they saw was only one of the people that lay dead on the ground. Men, women, children and elders all dead, it was carnage. They had been attacked by surprise, without the possibility of defending themselves they had been pitilessly killed; even the animals had been slaughtered.
Ike felt his legs tremble; he crouched down and retched violently. Buck kneeled down near him; unable to say a word he put a hand on his friend shoulder. Suddenly the memory of his past assaulted him. When he returned from his first hunt he had found the same devastation. His mother dead, Little Bird vanished, the life as he knew it destroyed in a moment. He heard Ike sobbing near him but he couldn't cry; he stared blankly before him.
After a while Buck felt Ike's hold on his arm. He turned to look at him.
*Why?* he asked between the tears.
Buck shook his head. He had no answer.
They took care of the bodies, it must have passed days from their death, but buzzards haven't touched them. The only signs that showed the time passing were their unnatural stiffness and the paleness of the skin. How was it possible? It wasn't cold enough and the animals hadn't gone into hibernation yet; there wasn't snow or ice that could prevent the decomposition, still they had remained intact, in the same position that death had taken them.
The two riders built a pyre and then, fighting the repulsion and the horror, took the bodies, put them on the wooden pallet they built and burnt them. It was a long work, and when they finally finished it the sun had already risen. While the smoke rose to the cold, grey sky they silently prayed for the poor people of that village. They must have been Flower of the Prairie's people.
Another howl startled them, but it didn't sound menacing this time. It was almost a lament. They raised their heads and saw it on the bluff on the other side of the river: a huge white wolf was howling while the smoke slowly dispersed in the air. It didn't look at them, it just howled. In that moment something seemed to break, the eerie stillness that hovered in that place disappeared. A small wind began to blow, the birds started to sing as if they had woken only in that moment. A sharp smell of putrefaction spread in the camp. The poles of the tents that they didn't disassemble fell down. It was as if the time had been frozen until that moment, and that only after they took care of that people it started to flow again.
Near the wolf appeared the small figure of Flower of the Prairie, but a moment later the wolf and the child disappeared.
*Buck! You saw it!*
The young Indian nodded.
"There was something strange in that wolf." Ike thought. "It really seemed that it had befriended the small girl. Could it be a domesticated animal? Maybe the girl was the only one who survived at her village's massacre and she took refuge in the wood with the animal. But still it didn't seems right…"
"Come on Ike, we need to find her."
They climbed on the cliff with difficulty, they had to left the horses at the camp because the path was too step and too narrow for them. Finally they reached the small plateau where they had seen the wolf and Flower of the Prairie. There was no trace of their passage though, so they went into the bushes that surrounded the ledge of rock to look for them. There was a small path hidden by the rocks and the plants, nothing more than an animal's trail, just big enough for a small child like Flower of the Prairie.
Buck and Ike looked at each other knowingly; if the girl had escaped from the massacre, that would be a good way to run away. After few meters they saw a low cave that could make a perfect wolf's den.
*What do you think, could Flower of the Prairie have taken shelter in there?* Ike signed a little dubiously.
"I don't know, what about you?"
*The only way to find out is to go in.*
They leaned down and carefully entered in the cave, hoping that there wasn't any animal. There was a sharp smell inside, and on the ground they found remains of animals and tufts of fur. It really was a wolf's lair! They decided to go out, not eager to encounter the owner of that place, when suddenly in the half-light they made out a small figure curled in a corner.
"Flower of the Prairie!" Buck whispered.
The child didn't move and he came closer, maybe she was hurt or in a faint. The young man swooped her in his arms and rapidly he and Ike exited from the cave.
As soon as they were outside and Buck could clearly see the small girl, he jolted so violently that almost dropped her. Flower of the Prairie's skin was of a bluish shade of white, marked by red signs of scratches and bruises; the girl was immobile and cold. He slapped gently her cheeks but he had already understood it was useless: the child was dead for some time.
He sank on his knees. How was it possible? They had talked with her just the night before, they had saw her not half a hour before few meters from there, and now she was laying lifeless in his arms. Ike dropped himself near him, reaching out a hand to caress her soft black hair.
They stayed there shocked, without saying a word. A sharp pain gripped their hearts; their eyes filled with tears thinking about all the suffering the poor Flower of the Prairie must have endured. She must have witnessed her family's massacre and then she had to fight to survive alone for they didn't know how long; and when finally she had found someone who could help her she had succumbed.
Buck's grip on the girl tightened. He clasped her little body on his chest and began to sob earnestly. He had found like this too many children he had known the day the white men attacked his tribe, and even if his condition of half-blood never allowed him to really befriend any of them, to remember their deaths and the suffering of the ones who had survived but lost their families tore at his heart.
"Will all of this never end?" he said between the tears.
Ike was deeply touched by his friend's desperation. Buck had always been the most rational of the two of them, he was the one who consoled him and infused him with courage and self-confidence but when it came to talk his fear and his troubles Buck hadn't never been too eager to share his burden. Even when he had had problems with his brother Red Bear, that ended with the rider's choice to follow his Express family, he had preferred to go away and face them alone to not endanger the ones he cares about, but also to not show his weakness. It was as Buck was made.
Buck had never talked to anyone about what he had saw that day he decided to abandon his tribe, neither to Ike. But the mute rider could understand him; he too never talked about that horrible day when his family was slaughtered by a band of outlaws. Those memories hurt just too much to be shared with someone else.
"Don't cry, please." They heard the soft voice of Flower of the Prairie.
The two riders raised their head startled. Before them they saw the girl. Her skin was smooth, no trace of bruises, her black hair was shining and she was smiling at them, serene and happy.
They looked down at the body Buck was holding. How was it possible?
*Are you a spirit?* Ike asked.
His heart was beating fast, the nuns had always told that ghost and spirits were evil things, and also his father used to tell him and his sister a lot of dreadful stories of evil spirits when he was a little child. But Flower of the Prairie wasn't evil, he could feel that.
"She chose to stay with me."
A sense of awe filled the riders' heart, the voice that spoke those words was low and hollow, but not scary. It emanated a sense of power and wisdom ancient like the wood and the rocks around them. Buck dared to look past the girl, few steps behind her there was what he looked as a man, an Indian Brave. He wore only buckskin breeches, his skin was smooth and glowed in a bronze tone that contrasted vividly with the long white hair that hung freely down his back. His face was immobile and emotionless, but his golden eyes were glowing.
"White Wolf." Buck whispered.
"You took care of my people Running Buck, and you too, son of the white men. You set their spirits free."
"Thank you, for having been so nice with me." the little Flower of the Prairie "and I'm sorry to have screamed at you, Ike…and to have bitten you, Running Buck."
She pouted in an apologizing, childish way and then she turned and ran to White Wolf. She took his hand and raised her head to smile at him. On the man's face appeared the hint of a smile and his expression softened for a moment.
*What is happening, Buck?* Ike was confused.
"Flower of the Prairie found her place in the world."
Ike and Buck buried the little body of Flower of the Prairie near the wolf's lair they found her. After their encounter with the Wolf Spirit the hostility they had felt since they had entered in the wood disappeared. It was as if their compassion and pity had reconciled the forest with the human beings, after that place had been profaned by the slaughter of all those innocent people.
The two friends rode silently out of the wood, both too overwhelmed by what they had just lived to talk. When they finally returned to the trail they had abandoned the evening before, a howl rang in the air. They turned and see a magnificent white wolf and a small dark wolf cub looking at them.
"Flower of the Prairie…" Buck murmured.
"Good bye, little one." Ike mouthed and raised his arm to salute them.
"Yeah, good bye little one." The Kiowa repeated.
And then they spurred their horses to go home.
A big thank to my beta-reader Mollie!!